This past few months I’ve been beavering away at Lola Post on 2 series of shows, creating VFX of a weathery, Earth-scale nature for Britains’ Most Extreme Weather, and shots of all scales for series 3 of How The Universe Works.
Ordinarily I’d put together blog posts before a show goes to air, but in the case of Britain’s Most Extreme Weather it slipped from my mind as soon as I rocked back onto How The Universe Works. Much of my weathery input was particle systems and strands, either using existing setups from previous shows or creating new ones as appropriate. A particular favourite of mine was a system showing the movement of air around cyclones and anticyclones; A strand system that rotates particles around many points, allowing them to move fluidly from one direction to another as if air, all wrapped around a lovely spherical Earth.
How The Universe Works is a series I’ve been on for many many months now. I first started on it in November I think. The first episode, all about our Sun, is to be shown on 10th July on Science in the USA.
For that show I took Lola’s existing Sun cutaway setup, introducing a more boiling lava-like feel through judicious use of animated fractals and grads.
Overall I’ve worked on 8 episodes with a handful of shots in each show. After all that dedication to spheres in space I am now supervising the VFX on one of the last shows for this series!
More geeky details and videos for both shows to come!
Update! The CCTV-9 channel branding, including this ident, recently won a Gold for Best Channel Branding at the PromaxBDA awards in Singapore!
I was called back in to work at Lola in London for this Chinese TV channel ident for CCTV-9 Documentary. Only 2 of us worked on this shot: myself and Tim Zaccheo, head of 3D at Lola.
The ident sees a waterfall coming down the side of a cubic mountain. The camera pulls back down a valley with scenery akin to the Guilin area of China, then out into space to reveal that the Earth is indeed cubic. CCTV have a cubic theme, so this makes sense in context. Thanks to the real-world scale of Terragen and the existing workflow at Lola, Tim was able to come up with a camera move that once imported into Terragen matched perfectly with the Softimage scene. The Earth’s textures and even the clouds lined up perfectly in both sections allowing a seamless blend.
My part in this was embellishing the initially blocked out Terragen scene with the necessary details to make it look like the Guilin mountains. A challenge there was that Terragen is great for pointy Alpine style mountains dusted with snow. That is easy out of the box. Guilin mountains are almost bell jar in shape, carpeted in trees with rocky cliffs here and there. The valleys between have been eroded away by rivers, leaving behind relatively flat farming land.
The solution to this was a variety of painted map shaders. Although this allows flexibility and great detail when it comes to controlling displacements, they’re best replaced with actual textures if possible, else the rendering gets very intense. In this case it wasn’t really an option. The painted maps were used to define areas of low and high ground, plus to define where the river goes and to control where the farmland appeared.
As there is quite so much foliage in the area there needed to be a solution that didn’t rely entirely on populations of tree objects. In come the procedural trees. This is essentially a series of overlaid displacement textures that build up to create the cauliflower head look to the trees. Similarly, the farming land was achieved using a tiled texture of fields and a few trees distrbuted along hedgerows. It’s very easy in a procedural program like Terragen to forget that a bitmap texturing approach is still a valid method and often faster.
Something that took a while to figure out was the cubic mountain at the start. The cube was initially displaced using a square displacement map with a falloff around the edges, plus an area eroded away at the front. The stoney displacements were then layered on to this, taking the new normals into account, rather than throwing everything up vertically as is the default. It was then eroded in various directions using extra displacement maps.
The waterfall was Tim’s baby, done entirely in Softimage’s ICE using fairly straight forward techniques, but along with some coloured mattes it all came together nicely in the comp.
There’s no sound on the video above by the way. I’ll replace it with one with audio once I’ve located it.
For the past few months I’ve been working at Lola Post, London, on Mankind, soon to be shown on the History channel both here in the UK and the USA.
I worked on quite a few sequences, 30 shots in total. Most of these involved creating projectiles of differing sorts, predominantly arrows; People firing arrows, being shot by arrows, and avoiding arrows while simultaneously cheating the whole archer deal by using guns. All arrows in the sequence above are CG.
As with many documentaries, many shots on Mankind were illustrative map shots, presented as full scale Earth scenes and as full CG shots they were subject to much change. Luckily, the flexibility of CGI makes it easy to work outside the boundaries of reality and to change one’s mind.
A few of the shots I worked on involved creating digital sets. Firstly I created an aqueduct for a sequence of shots with Caesar in. This was a case of tracking shots, matching on set details and extending upwards.
The trickiest shot was a bullet time shot, first in the sequence above, showing an Irish navvy unwittingly getting a little too close to a tunnel blast within the Appelacians. The original footage was green screen with the actor effectively sitting on a green pole with the camera moving around him. This introduced a wobble but was significantly easier and cheaper than a timeslice rig. As the footage was ramped up and down as well as being slow mo, getting rid of the wobble was high priority and after many tests it was eventually solved with simple yet nifty 3d camera trickery.
To smooth out the wobble, I followed a suggestion of Lola’s MD, Grahame. Having tracked the raw footage in PFTrack I projected that original footage through the camera in Softimage onto a card, positioned where the actor should be. That way the actor stayed in the same place in 3d space whilst I moved my new 3d camera around him.
The entire environment in that shot is a 3d set I threw together out of multiple particle instances of the same handful of rock models.
Most of the other shots were relatively straight forward, the exception being another bullet time shot, this one actually being one of the first bullets ever fired! The footage for the start of the shot was different to that of the end, so although the start had lots of people thrusting spears and poles in a smokey landscape, the end was completely clear of people and smoke, plus the target dummy was way too near. To solve this I made a new 3d gun, texturing it with various camera projected textures from the original footage, then made a new background out of a humongous psd stitched together out of footage and photos. In the end none of the original footage is being used as footage, more as texturing inspiration! It’s a really long shot so I split it in the sequence above.
All the work I did on this show bar the Earth-scale shots was rendered using Arnold. This has an advantage over Mental Ray of being a fast method of getting realistic lighting complete with indirect light bouncing. The quality is superb. To me, Mental Ray is much more flexible, but Arnold trumps it for speed between initial light placement and realistic render. I’m very glad I’ve forced myself to learn it.
A few of the aforementioned Earth-scale map shots are shown below.
This Sunday at 2100 on BBC2 sees the start of Orbit: Earth’s Extraordinary Journey, a 3-parter presented by Kate Humble & Dr Helen Czerski about the Earth, its orbit, its tilt and how these things affect us all.
It’s something of a VFX-laden job with the task of creating graphicky goodness falling into the capable hands of Lola, London. This included myself as a freelancer.
I worked on a handful of complicated shots for this including one where the hot air above india rises, sucking in cold air off the sea. That was a very dense particle system with a few caching issues, but we got there eventually.
The hardest thing with this show is there are a lot of shots which explain slightly different things but which share a similar 3D scene. Creating an appropriate camera move around what are essentially spheres in space should be a simple deal. One shot I was tasked with shows the Sun rising over the Earth. We pull back to see the Earth as a whole passing through space then follow it round its orbit. That was one camera move. Sometimes it’s the apparently simplest things that are actually the hardest. Moving the camera in such a way as to get the Sun to rise at a constant speed, then following the Earth at a reasonably constant distance, but continually orbit the Sun as well, took a lot of fiddling. We had a camera rig which worked really well for close to the Earth shots but not for wide shots. In the end it was hand-animated without a rig.
The second tricky thing with space is scale. We regularly had to move the Sun much nearer the Earth than it really is so it can be seen clearly as opposed to being a tiny insignificant dot with less drama than a wet tea towel.
Just to confuse me, the second of the Richard Hammond documentaries has a different name, Journey to the Bottom of the Ocean!
It’s on Tuesday 26th July 9pm BBC One.
The first part, Journey to the Centre of the Planet, received praise all round on the whole which is great. Best thing I saw on Twitter was “Wouldn’t it be great if Richard Hammond reached the centre of the planet only to discover it was made of lego?”